London and English Countryside

Where can you hang out with Pearly Kings and Queens, surrounded by tons of history and beautiful countryside? Well, London and her surrounding countryside is the only answer that will do. Welcome to England, and one of my favorite cities, London!

With over 600 square miles of urban jungle and over nine million people, London can easily knock the socks off a first time visitor! With all of the sights, sounds and smells of thirty-plus cultures conspiring to assault your senses and awaken your appetite, I find it helps to break London down into easier-to-digest neighborhood-sized portions! So…let’s hop on board a double-decker bus… or hail one of London’s famous cabbies…and we’ll hit the ground running!

First stop…Camden Market! Built just off a lock, a water passage, weekends are when to hit this market, geared to teens and tweenies looking for bargains. If you want t-shirts, bags, you’re going to find it here. You want tarot readings, psychic readings, you can find that here. Tattoos. Want a good pizza? Find that too. Seek and ye shall find…that’s my motto! All in all, the Camden Market is where locals definitely tread… or should I say cruise? Looking very trendy and cool, we Yanks will stand out a mile, as British trendy is far different from what we have back home.

Can’t stay long, if you are going to see it all, so let’s go to the edge of St. James’ park and visit Trafalgar Square. Home to some gorgeous fountains, a monument to Lord Nelson, and more fountains. The traffic goes pretty swiftly, so watch how you go if you leave one side and try to get to the main fountains. A great place to cool your heels or even kick ‘em up a bit!

Until recently, Trafalgar Square’s most infamous residents were the hundreds of pigeons that got under foot. But the new mayor put an end to that. The old tradition of pigeon feeding was replaced with a rather unusual form of pest control! The pigeon hawk, an American bird. I’ve heard of a chicken hawk, but a pigeon hawk? Just be careful it doesn’t eat too many pigeons, or there won’t be any tradition left in Trafalgar.

Now, for birds of a different feather, head on over to Covent Garden. This locale, made famous in the play My Fair Lady is London’s answer to New York’s Greenwich Village. There’s no shortage of things to see and do and eat, and of course the shopping is fantastic for more unusual finds. There are some great little cafés and wine bars where folks meet up before and after theater performances.Just up the road from Trafalgar, is the National Gallery, housing one of Europe’s largest collections of paintings by the great masters. This museum is a great favorite for tourists and locals alike. It’s not so vast that it takes days to get through, and it has just enough of every period of art to be a perfect vacations study of art history. You can get up close to see things and the collection is just sensational to savor over a couple free hours.

Music lovers will find a lot to enjoy at Covent Garden. Everything from performances at the famed Royal Opera House to impromptu open-air arias. And there is an old club still there from the 70’s called The Rock Garden, which is a popular hangout. Don’t for the kids? They’ll be bouncing off the walls with fun, okay maybe not the walls, but they’ll have a blast just the same!

For shopaholics like me, Notting Hill Gate is the place to go for a weekend shopping spree. The famous Saturday morning antiques market on Portobello Road is where you’ll find scads of pre-loved treasures displayed on outdoor tables …just waiting for someone to give them a new home! “Buy Me! Buy Me!” they all seem to say as you walk by…how can you resist?

This is the largest ethnic weekend market in London. If you want Asian, Jamaican, West Indian, Arts and Crafts, whatever; you can find it here if you’re willing to fight the crowds and do a little bit of haggling. Who knows, you could find treasure! Bargain, bargain, haggle, haggle…if it doesn’t have a roof over it, it can be plucked from the table cheaper.

Okay…moving along…I’m getting hungry, must be time to head on over to Chinatown? Where’s my rickshaw!? Once a rundown area between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square, Gerrard Street has been transformed into a colorful, thriving neighborhood that caters to the Chinese community, locals and tourists alike descend on Chinatown for its delicious restaurants and cheap souvenirs. The food is great and very authentic in preparation. Squid Chow Mein, Hong Kong Style? They have it!

Next, we head off to a neighborhood that looks more like Times Square than Merry Olde England! Time to hop on a double-decker bus to Piccadilly Circus! Piccadilly Circus today is known for the famous winged angel in the traffic circle. It’s London’s most touristy square and is particularly popular with the younger crowd. Music stores…fast food…. and traffic…not to mention the infamous Trocodero, a huge tourist mecca…but the bumper cars and bowling alley inside are great for kids on a rainy day.

Let’s be adventurous and take the Tube (the underground subway) for our last neighborhood destination. Music fans everywhere will recognize the crosswalk that’s just outside the subway exit. It’s the famous Abbey Road crosswalk, the symbol of the London Music scene during the heyday of The Beatles. People still come to get that famous shot. Good Photo Op!

You know, all that pomp and circumstance…the crowns…the thrones…the jewels….that’s what I love about London….Royalty! It’s such an integral part of the living history here…so much to explore. But where do you start? Buckingham Palace, of course. Originally purchased in 1762 by King George III for a “Queen’s House”, Buckingham Palace has been rebuilt and added on to several times over the years. With its Corinthian Columns and gilded gates, this ornate palace has been the official Royal Residence since Queen Victoria moved in, in 1837.

Guards on foot and horseback have been keeping watch over the sovereigns since 1660. The changing of the guard or “Guard Mounting” as it’s officially called, is full of that pomp and circumstance I like. And obviously, so do millions of other tourists. It is a must to see and experience, so make sure it is on your itinerary.

Buckingham palace may be the official royal residence, but the Queen’s favorite place to call home is Windsor Castle. Located just 40 minutes outside of London in the Berkshire countryside, Windsor Castle is the largest continuously inhabited castle in the world. First built by William the Conqueror in 1066, the original structure was built from timber with earth fortifications. He chose the site, high above the River Thames and on the edge of a Saxon hunting ground because it was only a day’s march from the Tower of London.

Windsor was originally intended to guard the western approaches to the capital. The castle was later rebuilt in stone, with Henry II adding the Round Tower and the original stone outer wall. St. George’s Chapel was started in 1475 by Edward IV and completed some fifty years later by Henry VIII who’s buried inside the chapel along with nine other monarchs.

The Chapel is dedicated to the patron saint of the Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest Order of Chivalry, and ranks among the finest examples of late medieval architecture in the United Kingdom. The castle has remained mostly unchanged since the early nineteenth century except for the restoration work that occurred following the devastating fire in 1992.

For 900 years, Windsor Castle has been home to the British Monarchy, and from the looks of those stone walls, I’d guess it’s going to be around for another 900 years as well. The castle is located right in the center of town, so plan some extra time to stroll down the cobblestone streets of “New” Windsor.

Wow, a great castle and now a great shopping street. Is this a good place or what!? The shopping here is much more relaxed than in London, with outdoor cafes nestled between the historic Georgian and Victorian homes and shops…a great place to take a break. Old World Charm and classic hospitality combine in Windsor creating a country village that just says “WELCOME!” William Shakespeare is said to have written “The Merry Wives of Windsor” here. Looking for that special Royal Family Souvenir? This is the place!

You want to do something really English? Stop into a pub. Everybody comes in for conversation, a pint of beer and pub grub. Now that is great. You can get a ploughman’s lunch, you can get a meat pie, so terribly British. You know what? Every one of these pubs has a story. A priest, a beefeater and a solicitor walk into a pub…no, not those kinds of stories – these pubs tell the history of England. Pubs are where great novels were written, great laws were conceived and tested, great rivalries were fought and great reunions won. A place to celebrate, reflect or grab a bite of “pub grub” as the Brits say, place a ‘pub crawl’ at the top of your tourist ‘To Do’ list the next time you’re in England.

For something a bit more cultural, visit the Brompton Oratory and the Royal Albert Hall. Built between 1880 and 1884, the Brompton Oratory is the church of a community of priests called “Oratorians”, good speakers I’d imagine! It’s the second largest Catholic church in London. Adjacent is the Royal Albert Hall, one of the world’s leading entertainment venues, it Hall has hosted over 150,000 performances since its opening concert in 1871 and it’s home to the wildly popular BBC Proms and the Prince’s Trust Concert.

Located just outside of Windsor, in the heart of the English Countryside, Legoland is the perfect alternative to the “historical” attractions here, when the kids are ready to do something FUN! With over fantastic rides, shows and themed areas, Legoland Windsor has something for every member of the family. The older kids will take off straight away for the roller coasters, which are designed after the popular Lego building sets. The younger kids will head for the ingenious kid-powered rides like the Kid Power Towers. Judging from the smiles on all the kids faces, I’d say Legoland Windsor is doing something right! Throughout the park, convenient cafes, gorgeous gardens and winding paths invite families to discover new adventures at every turn.

The must-see attraction at Legoland Windsor is their world famous Mini-land. Tiny recreations of famous cities are extremely detailed and animated… and will capture the imagination of the entire family. Well, I can’t imagine a better place to take the kids when they’re tired of castles and museums and ready for some real fun…It’s perfect!

Back in the London boundaries, Kensington Palace is another noteworthy sight to see. It was also a royal home to several monarchs and their families, including everyone’s favorite royal – Diana, the Princess of Wales. Visitors can actually go in part of the -palace, but not the part that Di inhabited, it’s off limits and still in use. A public playground is being named for Princess Diana in the gardens of Kensington Palace and you’re sure to enjoy the rooms open for royal voyeurs, like myself, to have a look around!

Last but certainly not least, is my favorite royal residence, The Tower of London. A World Heritage site, the Tower has been the setting for many colorful events during its 900-year history. If you only have one day to spend in London and you ask me, what should I see? I’d have to say, the Tower of London. From the Beefeaters to the Bloody Tower, to the Crown Jewels, it’s the history of England behind those walls.

Built by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century the Tower has hosted many famous “guests” behind these walls…some of whom, didn’t live to tell the tale. Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir William Wallace, Lady Jane Grey to name a few…and don’t forget those two infamous wives of Henry VIII who lost their heads over him!

The three million guests who visit the Tower these days, get to leave with their heads intact, and filled with some amazing stories, because the Yeoman Warders or “Beefeaters,” always have a legend or a ghost story to tell!

The one you’ll hear about most is about the birds that hang out at the Tower. Ravens have always been in the Tower, nesting in the trees. Later on, they moved into the turrets. Legend or myth has says that should the ravens leave the grounds of the Tower, then the White Tower, the center, the heart of this place, her majesty’s oldest palace and fortress would crumble to dust. But more importantly, the Monarchy of England would cease to be. So it will not surprise you, by royal decree, in 1660, it was laid down by King Charles II, that they must always keep ravens here on the grounds of the Tower, and to this day they keep six on the grounds without fail.

But if it’s the spooky stories that give you the shivers, come for the reservation-only, Key Ceremony at closing, when they lock all the doors…it will give you goose bumps!

London probably has more landmarks and fun things to do per square mile than any other European city. So…how do you choose? You don’t. You just go EVERYWHERE!! And don’t miss the Palace of Westminster… formal royal residence and home to Parliament! Majestically over-looking the river Thames, it’s a combination of original medieval and gothic revival structures built in the 1800’s.

One of Parliament’s two towers, Big Ben, with its 14-foot long minute hand, is the most recognizable site in all of England. During WWII, a bomb destroyed part of Parliament, but the clock tower was unharmed and Big Ben continued to strike away the hours, a welcome reassurance of hope to all who heard its distinctive sound.

Ahhh, the London Bridge —BBBUUUZZZZ Wrong! It’s the Tower Bridge! London Bridge is in Lake Havesu, Arizona, back in the US. One of the largest and most sophisticated drawbridges in the world, the Tower Bridge is probably the most misidentified landmark as well. Originally built in the late 1800’s to relieve London Bridge of its snarling traffic jams, 150,000 vehicles cross the Tower Bridge every day.

Perhaps the best way to get an insight into the social and political history of London is a quick tour of its many cathedrals. Tales of kings and queens, power and passion are told through the many stained glass windows, gothic arches and spirals, and stone sentries that adorn these often controversial landmarks. From the humble façade of St. Bartholomew’s Church, the restrained elegance of St. Paul’s Cathedral where Princess Di was married, to the excesses of St. Stephen Walbrook and Southwark Cathedrals, these monuments are testaments to the traditions typical of their times. The granddaddy of them all is Westminster Abbey whose legendary history is surpassed only by its beauty. But watch where you step, as they have some historical figures buried under the floor!

Okay…History class out of session, let’s hit the park! That would be Hyde Park! There’s plenty of action available here! If people watching is more your speed, you can always grab a pint and soak up a few rays! Leisure time in London…ahhhh…. it’s a dog’s life! The Serpentine on a weekend afternoon; people walking and jogging and swimming and bicycling and rollerblading and paddling and peddling. And for the ultimate trek through the park, go to the stables and rent a horse for a couple of hours!

For a view from the top, nothing beats London’s newest tourist attraction, the award winning London Eye. Carrying over 15,000 passengers a day, each high-tech capsule on the London Eye is truly a room with a view! Another thing you have to do and place to go, and, yes, the kids will enjoy it, I’m sure.

They also enjoy our next stop, none other than the world famous, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Since 1835, Madame Tussaud’s has delighted Londoners and tourists galore. With a nostalgic nod to the past and a creative team focused on the future, Madame Tussaud’s has something to amuse and amaze everyone in the family. They add new figures of current celebrities quite often, so be on the lookout for lifelike versions of people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Dame Judy Dench and a host of others! Don’t bother asking for autographs, they are only wax, remember! There’s also a theme parked style ride in a London taxi and a chamber of horrors, oh my! Madam Tussaud’s is definitely a place to see.

For some entertainment that’s a bit more ALIVE, nothing beats the London Theatre scene. Long running shows are the easiest tickets to get your hands on, but some of the newer shows are definitely worth queuing up for! There are lots of choices with London Theater. My fav? The Palladium – “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!” Grab the kids, it’s a musical, wow! Other people prefer a performance at the London Theater.

Still others say, there’s only one choice: Shakespeare at the Old Globe. The Globe, itself, has been rebuilt according to the techniques as exact as it could be to the original. If someone’s coming over here, let’s say from America, and they want to see a bit of Shakespeare they come to London and they want to go maybe see Stratford where he was born and see plays maybe by the Royal Shakespeare Company there, then they come back to London and see a performance to complete the Shakespearean experience.

Where to stay? Bed and breakfast, full-service hotel, English charm or high-tech and trendy? But before you result to the eenie-meenie-miney-moe, the most important thing to consider, well next to price of course, is location. When I’m in London, I always stay at the Athenaeum Hotel and Apartments. Very centrally located and very high caliber! However, if you want something really lavish, try staying in a country manor just outside London. Originally built by the second Duke of Buckingham beginning in 1666 as a country retreat, Cliveden House is one of England’s finest country houses and has been a center of influence, wealth and political power for over 300 years. Cliveden has welcomed almost every British Monarch since George I and as the former home of Lady Astor, such notables as George Bernard Shaw, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were among the overnight guests.

Now an internationally renowned five star hotel, Cliveden House invites you to follow in the footsteps of its former famous guests and relax and play in its luxurious surroundings. It’s really quite distinctive. The houses are very old, hundreds of years old – been in the same family for a long time, and the way the house is organized is quite similar to an exclusive hotel.

Whether you’re checked into one of the original bedrooms like the Lady Astor Suite or one of the newly converted rooms in the stable block, you’re going to find the most luxurious and comfortable accommodations this side of the Thames!

Now, even if you’re not staying at Cliveden House, you can come out and have a walk through the gardens or look at the house and settle in the blue room for an afternoon tea, where Lady Astor used to take her tea. Now there is a wrong way and a proper way to have tea in England. A few rules, for example, you always heat the pot, you bring the water to the tea leaves and not the tea leaves to the pot. You should be served sandwiches, cakes, tarts, scones, clotted cream and jam. And then sit up straight and stick out your pinky.”

There’s no shortage of things to do while visiting at Cliveden. You can stroll the well-maintained grounds for hours, but my favorite is taking a lazy cruise on the Thames. You can book a little cruise down the river for drinks, lunch, or even a three-course meal. What a life!”

Okay, let me see if I understand how they do this in Britain. Now, Cliveden is a country house, not to be confused with a country cottage which is much smaller, or a country chateau which is a country house in France, so that has no relevancy here, or a castle which has a drawbridge and a moat which is for the royalty. Okay. I think I got it. Staying in the country is something you’ll remember for a lifetime, and if you don’t stay, you can at least stop in to take in the royal atmosphere and that is a savings on the pocketbook!

Ah, England swings like a pendulum do, bobbies on bicycle, two by two…I can’t think of a better family vacation destination than London and the surrounding suburbs for a trip through history and a trendy metropolis! Cherio!